Sunday, 17 February 2013

The materiality of a digital edition

In what sense can one talk about the materiality of a digital edition? This question sounds rather odd, as a digital edition, a digital text does not have, is not constituted by matter in the straightforward and simple manner. A digital text is processed through electronic, digital signs, i.e. signs that can hardly have tangible physical qualities. And if they had, to what extant would they be relevant for the reading of a text? In this sense, thus, the question addressing the materiality of the digital text sounds erroneous. Hopefully, there is more to this question, however, than mere refusal.

In a more pragmatic context the question may well make sense. Materiality can be conceptualized not only as an ontological category but rather as a category that is deployed for the sake of exploring layers of meaning constituted by the container and carrier of the linguistic aspect of a text or an edition. This seems to be a viable solution, as when the materiality of a printed text is referred to in the context of literary studies most of the time it is used in a pragmatic manner. Materiality in this pragmatic context denotes the sum of those qualities of a book that influence the reading process and thus the construction of meaning beyond the linguistic aspect of a work. Without believing that the forthcoming list may be comprehensive, these qualities include the size of the book, the binding, the quality and size of the paper, the letter size and typeset, the width of the margins, decoration, marginalia. This pragmatic concept of materiality, i.e. an exploration of a list of qualities and features that influence the reading process can be applied directly and indirectly to a digital edition as well.

In the case of a digital edition there is clearly a visual aspect that influences the reading process in a more flexible way than in the case of a printed book. In a digital edition the text is made up of letters that have visual qualities that can be anchored in size and type, these letters fill the “page” so even here one may meditate about space between the letters, lines, about the width of margins. Nevertheless, in some cases, depending on the encoding of the edition and on the file format these qualities can be changed by the customer, or reader: the type, the size can be open to modification, one can zoom in or out in certain cases, one can read the text on the screen of a laptop, a tablet pc or on a smartphone qualifying the physical, visual aspect of the edition. All these are there for the sake of influencing the reading process, as much as in the case of a printed book, although in a different manner. But what seems relevant is that it is only the manner that has changed and not the extralinguistic means: they are present but in a different way.

Another aspect that influences the reading process is the way the digital edition can be “read.”A digital edition can be read as a book, i.e. in a linear manner. Also a digital edition can be read in two nonlinear ways. First, as a hypertext through clicking in diverse directions enriching the reading experience in a way that the sequence of the parts of the reading material is created during the act of reading itself. Second, digital reading involves machine reading, that is making sense through queries, exploring algorithmic patterns and a variety of visualizing techniques. Furthermore, it is also relevant in the case of a digital edition what kind of colours, shapes and frames surround the text itself, what kind of note-taking techniques can be applied, how one may share these findings, notes, observations if it is a web-based edition. All these possibilities, opportunities, tools and methods influence the act of making sense of a digital edition beyond the strictly speaking linguistic aspect of a digital text. And thus all these contribute to the process of the construction of meaning, the signifying process of a say literary work.

A further aspect of the change from print to digital that contributes to the understanding of digital materiality concerns the shift from the fixed to what Hayes terms as procedural. A printed text through its materiality is present for anybody almost objectively. This material fixity is constituted by the technology of printing: if a work is published the result is there for a long time, and in a way that was constructed by the publisher, printer. Along with this every modification to the book—pages torn out, damaged, written on it—will be seen as either contribution to the signifying process or as corruption. In the case of a digital edition, however, what matters is the ever-changing quality of the visual appearance of the work.  What lies behind what is perceived is a series--complicated though—of digits. This series then is translated with certain software into different signs that are interpreted by further programmes; the results are further made readable for other programmes until the desired effect is reached. Because of the great number of translations, and the number of programmes that make these translations there is a heightened effect of fluidity in the case of these digital editions.

This fluidity is further complicated by the fact that the process of translations takes place not only once and for all but every time the digital edition is opened. To account for the fluid aspect of a digital edition it is also to be added that the hardware that underlies these procedures also influences the reading process, insofar as the speed and resolution of the visual effect are concerned. In this respect what counts are the quality of the processor, of the hard drive, the graphic card, maybe the internet connection and the quality of the monitor. All these result in such a diversity of the possibilities of difference that instead of the discourse of fixity and corruption it is only the procedural quality that one can meditate about. This lack of fixity is part of the material aspect of a digital edition.

Thus, it seems to me that exploring the materiality of a particular digital text is not entirely futile. In this respect it is not the traditional physical quality that is at stake but rather whatever there is from coding to hardware that influences the reading process besides the linguistic aspect of a text.

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